Nyonya Needlework: Embroidery & Beadwork in the Peranakan World

Mounted by the Peranakan Museum lasting from 24 Jun 2016 - 26 Mar 2017, this stunning display of Peranakan embroidery and needlework is truly spectacular.

Very large embroidered table cover with tassels, approximately 2 meters in diameter, and one of the show pieces of the exhibition.

Before seeing this exhibition, I had little idea of the intricate 'lifestyle' items ranging from table covers, to shoes, to clothing that Peranakan families commissioned for their homes as displays of wealth. Many of the pieces were fabricated in China on commission and brought over to Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and other Peranakan communities.

My favorite piece from the exhibition was a humongous table cover in a beautiful robin's egg blue embroidered with over a million tiny glass beads depicting exotic birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and a myriad of bright, cheerful flowers.

High quality glass beads with a sparkle and gorgeous vibrant hues which have endured for a century.

The piece looked like a shimmering and sparkling intricate oil painting. The blending of subtle shades of colors each melting into the next is mind-blowing considering this wasn't done by a paint brush. Each bead, less than 1mm, was painstakingly chosen for its shade and tone in color, and then hand sewn into the fabric, and repeated, oh, maybe over one million times. It takes me long enough to decide the colors and shades that go into each of my tassels . . . I can only imagine what making this involved.

A 'work station' for embroidery. This haberdashery wooden drawer stand held the silk threads, needles, and glass beads used for needlework. Next to it are trays of small containers of beads organized by color.

I took a ton of close up photos of details and motifs. After all, the devil is in the details.

I also found it super fascinating that certain designs in the Peranakan needleworks were similar to western Jacobean embroidery, such as the 'lattice' pattern found in the pomegranate above. Jacobean style embroidery flourished in England in the early 17th century, three hundred years before this Peranakan piece was made. This speaks to the 'global trade' and cultural influences that were already happening for hundreds of years. I'm curious about why the maker of this piece decided to use the Jacobean style and who was the designer anyway? Was it a Peranakan nonya matriarch who saw a Jacobean design in the house of a British colonialist and wanted something similar for her own home? 

The Peranakans were known to have very close ties to the British and acted as liaisons between them and the locals - a fact I learned on my guided walk of the Bukit Brown Cemetery with the Brownies (another fantastic cultural activity I highly recommend.) I learned so much about the cultural history of Singapore on this walk.

For comparison, take a look at this traditional Jacobean design:

 Traditional Jacobean floral design embroidery popular in early 17th century England.

In fact, many embroidery pieces in the exhibition, had this quality about them - a blend of eastern and western influences. Considering the history and culture of the Peranakan people, this is not surprising.

I will leave you here with a few more photos of details in the needlework and some interesting objects:

In this piece, I really loved the whimsical 'googly' eyes in all the animals:

I took lots of pictures of the fringe and tassels bordering the embroidery works:

There were also other forms of decorative objects (my computer is automatically turning the vertical photos into landscape . . .  I apologize, you'll have to crick your neck a little):

This was a piece done entirely with beads and I loved the colors (yellow, turquoise, and pink that can be found in so many Peranakan items):

I also discovered that the Peranakans were really into embroidering and beading shoes.These little guys were so adorable. All the animals featured in the embroidery had a whimsical, cartoon-like quality to them, which is just my thing:

If you've been on the fence about whether to go see this exhibition, I can say without any reservations, YES! If you love the decorative arts, history, and culture, this is a MUST-SEE.

In fact, I will probably go back and see it a second time before it ends in March next year . . . I spent so much time looking at the embroidery that I ran out of time and didn't get to see the porcelain.

'til next time!